Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Shorts: Separations


In this preview, shorts pre-selector Carol-Mei Barker examines the ‘Shorts: Separations‘ programme, films that show how connectivity doesn’t mean closeness.

In a rapidly globalising world, mounting technological advancements enable us to connect more fluidly and vividly with people thousands of miles away, and with an immediacy that has never before been possible. So why do we often feel so disconnected and isolated from each other? The Open City Documentary Festival shorts programme Separations offers rich and diverse insight into this contemporary paradox, grappling with the complexities of an arguably intrinsic drive to connect with each other, in the face of historical, technological, and societal barriers.

Technology in cinema is very often portrayed as a conduit for isolation. As such, a fear of spiralling technology is prominent in contemporary culture.  This fear, along with our incessant struggle to reconnect via the same modes of technology that often work to separate us, is a key theme explored across several films in this programme.  In Victoria Mapplebeck’s Missed Call, a personal story of the filmmaker’s own lost connection is woven through a framework of digital-bound memories and possible futures: home videos, Facebook profiles and re-written text messages are offered up to pose questions around how technology enables us to construct, as well as connect with, the identities of those we do not know, or used to know. 

The void felt in a distant yet loving relationship between a mother and daughter is poignantly portrayed in Maria Stoianova’s Ma, which similarly explores social media’s capacity to actually connect us. The mother lives, seemingly isolated, in the conflict zone of Donbass in Ukraine. She films lengthy videos on her phone, largely detailing the minutiae of her day-to-day life. The videos play out like visual letters to her daughter, who in turn views them online miles away in Kiev. The sadness and emotional disconnect they both feel is emphasised by the one-way dialogue, and the fact that both mother and daughter remain unseen throughout, an absence that resonates with a powerful need for human connection.

In contrast, a more traditional form of technology prevails in Matt Houghton’s Landline, a film that explores how a simple telephone helpline has impacted so significantly on the lives of gay farmers in the UK.  Voices telling individual stories of isolation and intolerance, but also of love and solace, are heard over scenes that imagine the lived experience; a separation that reminds us how prejudice is merely a construction that can be overcome by listening to each other. 

History and ritual can often work to separate us from our ability to move forward, creating a gulf between humans existing alongside each other in societies. Maryam Tafakory’s Absent Wound is an experiment in both performance and sound, exploring spaces separated by gender in Iran. For the men, we witness an open space of solidarity and ritual. The female space is characterised, in contrast, by isolation, as well as by a shared bodily experience that women must go through alone.  With enthralling performance and sound, the film shows rituals of the body mesh with rituals of violence until they become difficult to separate.

The horrors and dreams of a past are conjured in Saodat Ismailova’s The Haunted, which recalls Turkestan’s collective history through imaginings of the nation’s extinct tiger. Set to a lingering, evocative soundtrack, folklore and archive images intertwine to explore the trauma of a colonial past that set the tiger on the road to extinction. Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann’s Season of Goodbyes also delves into a past life, but here it is a personal one. Family connections and separations are explored as the filmmaker recalls her childhood relationships, both cyclical and linear, touched by both absence and love. Her poetic narration speaks of the men she was separated from, told over still images from her past, the women of which appear in contrast as strong visual signifiers of connection.